Drawn Across Borders

George Butler is a journalist and artist specialising in current affairs and travel. Between 2011 and 2018, he travelled to a dozen locations where people have been forced by circumstances beyond their control to leave their homes, documenting in words and pictures the individuals and environments he encountered. The result is a moving collection of histories illustrated with his own pen-and-ink and watercolor images, Drawn Across Borders. He answers our questions on the creation of the book.

Can you describe the role of a reportage illustrator? How would you describe your own approach in particular?

Reportage – photographic or illustrative tells a story, it should communicate an idea, empathise and relate the viewer to the audience. My approach is to spend time in a place, often returning multiple times, sometimes a year apart. I try to use drawing as a ‘handshake’ as the artist Paul Hogarth once said. Then I have an excuse for being there, and as I draw, I’m learning about what I am seeing. In a way you are seeing my notes from class. I’m trying to

show, not just tell the audience what is happening. Habits, characters and scenes; It’s the stories of the people and places that come from this process that I try and do justice to.

What media do you use when working on location? How do you choose your locations and what is it like working under pressure?

I use pen, ink and watercolour. It’s immediate, it’s fast and it appears on the page like a magic trick and that is a powerful tool when you don’t speak the language of the place you are in. My theory is that if you can sit down and make a drawing for forty-five minutes, then you should be in a place that is safe. Of course it doesn’t always work out like that and getting to that place can be dangerous and difficult. To be accurate quickly I have to have practiced enough that I don’t feel intimidated by a big white sheet of paper. However, being brave, not using pencil and not rubbing anything out can cut those corners too. Speaking to people makes me commit to making the drawing good, the pressure of having to do right by them really focuses my mind. I once sat with a group of men supporting the uprising on the Syrian/Turkish border, they thought I was a spy and asked me to draw one of them to prove I wasn’t! Which I did – very badly. In a way these drawings are a reaction to immediate things that happen.

12 Books for Keeps No.247 March 2021

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